Canadian and EU Integration: No Easy Road

Last week we explored some issues involving EU integration and Kiev’s decision not to sign the historic EU Association Agreement, which some argue would have put the Ukraine firmly on the road to prosperity. In light of the recent riots in the Ukraine’s capital—and the harsh government reaction to them—this post looks at some of the difficulties North Americans have when conceptualizing EU’s endless objective of expansion.

Following the announcement that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich would not sign the EU Association Agreement, and the cancellation of EU political visits to Kiev, roughly 10,000 protesters came together to voice their frustrations about their government’s decision. Instead of signing an agreement that would strengthen ties with the EU and European community, Kiev has decided to enter trade talks with Russia. On Saturday, civilians protesting in Kiev’s Independence Square were forcibly dispersed by riot police, using batons, stun grenades, and other means. Although the details remain obscure, photographs and video footage show police services employing excessive force on protesters. It’s clear that a significant number of Ukrainians hoped for better EU relations.

Over the past week, we’ve generated some discussion about our last post that criticized the pace at which the EU was expanding and argued that the Ukrainian decision to sidle with Russia was not as surprising as some commentators make it out to be. After all, how can an idea that originated in the 1950s effectively encompass all states, politics, and cultures from the United Kingdom and Sweden to Bulgaria and Romania? There might be reasons why the Ukraine is reticent about an EU deal. The Guardian, for instance, quoted one Ukrainian official saying that the cost of upgrading the Ukraine’s economy to EU standards would be too great and that the decision to enter trade talks with Russia was made pragmatically.

In response to our previous post, one European reader pointed out that proponents of further EU expansion claimed that all Europeans are similar anyway—aligning with the EU’s motto of “United in Diversity”—and, therefore, it made sense to work on integration. Additionally, some claim that European expansion benefits peripheral countries far greater—consider, for example, Poland or the Baltic states. However, integration or accession also has many disadvantages, such as so-called “brain drains” when professional or qualified workers emigrate to find work in other member states.

The transatlantic discussion has been helpful in highlighting some of the differences between Canadian versus European perspectives on integration and some of the problems that come with it. It has raised a number of questions about how best to integrate disparate economies and political cultures in Canada and whether some of the same debates about European integration can apply to the Canadian context.

For Canadians living outside the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, there is a long history of distrust or feelings of neglect. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, former Premier Danny Williams ordered that all Canadian flags be removed from provincial government buildings as way to protest the treatment of his province at the hands of central Canadian politicians in 2008. Our current government, formed by the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has its roots in regional isolation stemming from the policies of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. His 1980 National Energy Program (NEP) prevented the province of Alberta from selling oil at market prices, handicapping their potential economic prosperity during years when oil prices were rocketing in the 1980s. “Let those eastern bastards freeze in the dark” is a common refrain known even to Albertans born after the NEP was enacted. The Reform Party was founded in 1987 as a populist, Western-based protest party as reaction to the NEP and the broader tendency of federal policy to focus on Ontario and Quebec. Eventually rising to become the Official Opposition, they merged with the faltering Progressive Conservatives in 2003 under the leadership of Stephen Harper.

The growing strength of regionalism since the 1980s has drastically altered the Canadian political landscape. Quebec separatism is also a form of regionalism and the Bloc Quebecois is another party which is concerned with regional issues in the House of Commons. While Canada is more “united in diversity” than the European Union, it proves that the EU will not magically resolve its problems through regional integration. Instead, it may have to confront the issue of regional politics and regional forces influencing government in unexpected ways. This broaches the important question of whether integration and reform can occur concomitantly?

As historians, we tend to focus on shared or collective histories across Canada. The memories that countries or regions have constructed regarding those either within or beyond one’s province or country continue to shape the political landscape. In western and eastern Canada alike, there exists a continued suspicion toward the political and economic objectives of central Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec. These are deep-seated and complex sentiments that have become engrained in political consciousness and culture. To what degree do similar sentiments exist in European states and those seeking EU accession? And, perhaps more importantly, can they be overcome with integration and reform?

At least in the Canadian context, it seems that the divisive nature of political economies makes it impossible to mollify such a broad spectrum of economic, social, and political interests. Canada’s official motto—“From Sea to Sea”—applies more to our topography than it does our economies and politics. Here is just one example in which Canadian and European attitudes towards integration diverge greatly.